Why does Vanlivion still feel so good without mods after 16 years?
Right now we’re all sitting on our hands waiting for The Elder Scrolls 6. We wonder what joys it might hold for us. Whether the NPCs will be able to move, talk and act like something close to humans at the same time. Dream of a world full of undiscovered quests, unlooted chests, flawless candy buns.
But the human brain does not tolerate incomplete information loops. It’s difficult to live with the uncertainty of Elder Scrolls 6 – it could be an awful heap of pathetic nonsense, for all we know. Our subconscious wants to solve problems, not just sit by.
That’s the best explanation why I installed oblivion recently again. It’s so far in the past that the memories I have of it are now a sugar-coated, glossy veil, a fuzzy feeling rather than a clear sequence of events. It almost feels like a new game, albeit one made up of rather rudimentary parts.
I was expecting a nostalgia hit and an afternoon of fun. What I didn’t expect was that Oblivion would stand up on its own terms and captivate me all over again.
The part where you come out of the sewers and see the natural beauty of the world map for the first time – you know, that little bit? I’ve written about this moment for so many magazines and websites that actually playing this thing should put me in a daze. But it didn’t stun me. It got me pretty excited.
Even though I knew exactly what was going to happen. Even though I knew every inch of the world map beyond, and all the quests — the one that gets you trapped in a painting, the cult that wants to bring back the depths, all those pearls — I was still excited by the possibility and wondering. That’s a hell of a thing for a game that came out during the Blair administration to pull through in these modern times.
The central genius of Oblivion lies in its topography and very careful placement of points of interest on the map. That now feels like a somewhat obvious statement about an open-world game, and in fact it’s been the marketing gibberish of many E3 showfloor developers for years. “See that mountain on the horizon?” Yes, mate, let me guess: can we go there right at the start of the game?
But the truth is there are certain subtleties of climbing a hill and seeing something that takes you off the critical path. Ubisoft games do it in the most gauche way, turning the map into a ball pit with markers. At the other end of the spectrum, Elden Ring knows the power of saying nothing, showing little, and trusting the player’s curiosity. But Oblivion – without being able to draw on the advantages of many other open-world design titles – remains the master of wonder and adventure.
You will never be dragged out of the game and dragged into a cutscene. The passage of time never deviates from real-time, unless of course you’re resting in a cozy bed (or a horrible heap of burlap in a dank cave), and that continuity really affects the impact of seeing things outside the norm. Every time The Witcher 3 introduces a cutscene or shows you two camera angles of Geralt and a talking NPC, it reminds you that you’re playing a video game. It combines the languages of gaming and cinema, giving some elements more importance than others and when that is the case we know it’s all just scenery around us.
But Oblivion is committed to the idea that this realm you are in is real and happening independently of you. Something massive could be happening just out of sight. While you’re poking around the ruins of Kvatch, a fight could break out in the Cheydinhal Mages Guild. You crash in the Imperial City arena, but who knows what dangers Bruma might face.
It makes you think so by never deviating from its consistent, unbiased perspective on the world. When you first see an Oblivion Gate, think about how most games would show you that. A portal to an evil realm used by monsters to invade your world. The thing the game is named after. They talk about a cutscene of at least three minutes, which will likely be preceded by a lengthy NPC preamble in a scripted sequence that gets you to exactly where you want the game to be when it first spawns.
Not for Old Oblivion though. They are simply told that Kvatch is under siege. So when you travel there, you notice that the sky is a bit redder than usual and a few NPCs on the outskirts of town are freaking out and telling you to flee. And then you see it – a massive, shimmering, fiery portal that just… stands there. It’s so much more powerful to just exist without the usual fanfare of the world. It feels real
The same goes for the lower stakes moments. Those city-to-city walks and horseback rides that you set out on with the intention of getting straight from A to B and clearing a few quests from your log in time. And then you peek around a corner or over a shoulder you’ve never been to and notice a strange ruin. A gathering of minotaurs. A traveler with his upside down cart on the road. Oh go ondo you think
Often, Oblivion will continue these moments and expose them as the beginnings of well-written and unpredictable sidequests. But even if it isn’t, even if the cave is just a cave and the ruins don’t hold any ancient secret, don’t feel like your time was wasted. Because that distraction makes the world feel a little bit more real and adds extra meaning to everything else you do.
I surprised myself when I decided not to install mods for this game; a very different approach than what I took when replaying Skyrim. Well, if you want the truth, I installed one: my original player home, the same one I used in 2005. It really felt like going back to a childhood home, and that’s to be expected when you think about it. I spent months convincing myself that this collection of polygons was my house. Apparently my brain took that at face value and stored the memories accordingly.
But in terms of graphics, items, combat…I didn’t feel the need to change or update anything. I’m addicted to Skyrim modding, and yet in an unmodified state, Oblivion has made such a strong case for itself.
It got me thinking about The Elder Scrolls 6. About how important it is for Bethesda Game Studios to maintain that real-time timeline and uninterrupted, continuous first-person perspective. This feels to me like the very essence of an Elder Scrolls game that Oblivion has revisited, and I’m convinced that even if the combat were as primitive and the voice acting just as notoriously tricky, ES6 would still be a great one Game if it builds an equally intriguing world and keeps the illusion that it works independently of you.
https://www.vg247.com/elder-scrolls-oblivion-vanilla-still-great Why does Vanlivion still feel so good without mods after 16 years?